While much of the international media as well as the Obama administration are lambasting Israel for the conduct of its war in Gaza, friends of the Jewish state are also under attack this week. The charge is insufficient sympathy for Palestinians who are being killed and wounded in the conflict. But while all persons of good will should view the pictures of those suffering with horror, the rush to indict the pro-Israel community on the charge of callous indifference is unjustified.
Some of the discussion on this topic is easy to dismiss. In the case of Northeastern University’s Dov Waxman, who writes in the Forward to lament the lack of Jewish empathy for Palestinian casualties, it’s hard not to see his piece as a display of moral preening that tells us little about the situation or even what is motivating the discussion among pro-Israel activists. Of course, we should care about Palestinians. But other than demanding that friends of Israel gnash their teeth about the situation, it’s difficult to understand what he’d like them to do about it especially since he acknowledges that the fault for their plight largely belongs to Hamas. If, as Cynthia Ozick once aptly noted, “universalism is the parochialism of the Jews,” all Waxman here seems to be saying is that it’s necessary for Jews to do more conspicuous wailing about the Palestinians without in any way diminishing their support for Israel’s justified defensive war. Far from being callous, pro-Israel activists are concentrating their efforts on pointing out what the media has failed to about Hamas responsibility for the war and those who have been hurt by it.
More serious are Ramesh Ponnuru’s comments in his Bloomberg column on Friday. Ponnuru acknowledges that Israel is in the right in this contest and that Hamas and its apologists—especially those who falsely accuse Israel of “genocide”—are in the wrong. But he’s worried about those who go a step further in defense of the Jewish state and claim that there are no “true” civilians in Gaza.
Ponnuru takes particular aim at New York University Law School’s Thane Rosenbaum for writing in the Wall Street Journal that those in Gaza who give not only vocal support to Hamas but actively assist its fighters cannot claim to be mere civilians when they come under Israeli counter-fire. Ponnuru also thinks ill of historian Benny Morris who recently wrote that Israel needed to demonstrate a willingness to “exact a heavy price in blood from Palestinian civilians.”
According to Ponnuru, this is more than callousness. Rather it is, he says, a violation of the rules of war that call upon combatants to attempt at all times to make distinctions between enemy soldiers and civilians in their midst. Rosenbaum asserts that sympathy for Gazans who are active Hamas supporters who place their children in the path of violence in order to further group’s causes is misplaced. Ponnuru derides this as not merely unfeeling but a “disgusting sentiment.”
To the extent that these comments reflect a lack of sympathy for any child caught in the crossfire of even a justified war, he’s right. Children don’t choose to be part of a war any more than they choose their parents. Anyone who can view the suffering of Palestinians as they regard those who have been wounded and maimed and mourn their dead with indifference is wrong. Those who have lost the capacity to realize the common humanity even with an enemy have lost their moral compass.
But the discussion about the wave of empathy for Palestinians as their casualty toll mounts and the accompanying anger at Israel is not as simple as that. Rosenbaum may have overstepped his mark, as did Morris, whose main point was to correctly assert that Hamas could not be left standing if there was to be any hope for peace. But to merely assert, as Ponnuru does, that Palestinians civilians “aren’t the bad guys” in this drama is just as unhelpful.
Strip away some of the overheated rhetoric and what Rosenbaum has written is not merely true but inarguable. Palestinians who voted for Hamas, support their charter that calls for Israel’s eradication and the genocide of its Jewish population, cheer the deaths of Jewish civilians, and provide all possible aid to terrorists are not exactly innocent bystanders in this war.
Ponnuru is correct that American civilians can’t be legally targeted for acts of war conducted by their government overseas even if they happened to vote for that government. In that sense, the mere act of voting for Hamas or cheering their terrorist exploits does not make anyone in Gaza a legitimate target. But the distinction that Rosenbaum is attempting to make here is not one that would legitimize the wholesale slaughter of Hamas voters. Nor is Morris, when taken in context, advocating that. Rather, the point here is that those who actively assist Hamas “military” actions are not mere civilians.
But there is a broader point here that touches on just war theories.
As Ponnuru rightly notes, just war theory demands that we always distinguish between soldiers and civilians. But what we should understand is that as much as compassion should be extended to every human being in difficult situations no matter what their beliefs, the attempt to falsely brand Israel as behaving brutally must also be put in the context of a conflict that is happening specifically because Hamas believes killing more Jews will increase its popularity. One need not forfeit sympathy for injured Palestinian children to realize that if their society honors terrorism and incites hatred for Israel, the ensuing violence will take a terrible toll on its people. Those who point out that many of those decrying Israeli strikes on Gaza are themselves advocates of genocide against Israelis are not being callous. They are merely calling Palestinians to account for the culture of violence they have embraced at a time when much of the world is prepared to give them a pass. The suffering of their people will not abate until they reject that culture. To say so is not immoral. It is merely the truth.